Codes of conduct in large organisations help ensure people act in similar ways. Whether this is good, long-term, for both the creative and mental health of our societies is a different matter. But there we are: codes of conduct do – and probably must – exist.
Here’s an interesting excerpt from the piece I’ve linked to above on the subject:
In 1991, the U.S. Sentencing Commission issued the Federal Sentencing Guidelines for Organizations (FS GO), outlining the elements of an effective ethics and compliance program. As one component of this, the FS GO recognized that simply having a code was not enough. In this view, the “3P” approach – in which you “Print a code of conduct, Post it on the wall and Pray people actually read it”3 – simply did not form the basis for an effective program. As a result, the FS GO required code education for employees and other mechanisms for communicating and reinforcing organizational values.
In 2002, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act further bolstered the importance of codes of conduct by requiring public companies to have a code of conduct for top executives (and, if they didn’t have one, to explain why). Then in 2003, both the New York Stock Exchange and the Nasdaq required listed companies to adopt and disclose a “code of business conduct and ethics” that applies to all employees and directors. Together with these regulatory developments, having a code became practically a mandate for public companies.
The most recent step in the evolution of codes of conduct occurred in 2004 with the Revised Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which stipulated that companies must promote an organizational culture that encourages ethical conduct and commitment to compliance with the law. The impact of this change in the FS GO is that it effectively elevates a company’s code of conduct into becoming an integral part of its culture, not just a side note to employee education and communication.
The real question, of course, is what people do about these codes of conduct – and, indeed, which ones in reality are the ones which come out on top. For whilst the job description generally indicates what we must do, the glue which holds it together often tells us far more about what is really expected. There are many different kinds of codes of conduct out there: just because it’s written down and even drilled into you doesn’t mean that face-to-face contact on the day-to-day job won’t win you over to other ways of seeing and doing.
This, for example, from today’s second grilling of James Murdoch by Tom Watson on the subject of News International’s behaviours over the past decade or so.
Watson uses the Italian word “omertà” to describe the activities and environment he alleges circumscribe the behaviours in question. Wikipedia tells us the following in relation to this term:
Omertà (Italian pronunciation: [ɔmɛrˈta]) is a popular attitude and code of honor and a common definition is the “code of silence”. It is common in areas of southern Italy, such as Sicily, Apulia, Calabria, and Campania, where criminal organizations defined as Mafia such as the Cosa Nostra, ‘Ndrangheta, Sacra Corona Unita, and Camorra are strong. It also exists to a lesser extent in certain Italian-American neighbourhoods where the Italian-American Mafia has influence and other Italian ethnic enclaves in countries where there is the presence of Italian organized crime (i.e. Germany, Canada, Australia).
Omertà implies “the categorical prohibition of cooperation with state authorities or reliance on its services, even when one has been victim of a crime.” Even if somebody is convicted of a crime he has not committed, he is supposed to serve the sentence without giving the police any information about the real criminal, even if that criminal has nothing to do with the Mafia himself. Within Mafia culture, breaking omertà is punishable by death.
The code was adopted by Sicilians long before the emergence of Cosa Nostra (some observers date it to the 16th century as a way of opposing Spanish rule). It is also deeply rooted in rural Crete, Greece.
This, then, is clearly nothing more nor less than a code of conduct amongst members of a powerful organisation – a code which, in fact, makes such an organisation even more powerful than it might be.
So where does the essential difference lie between the above and – for example – a contractual relationship (of which there are many these days, in both the public and private sectors) which forbids a worker or employee from talking to, say, the press about anything company- or – indeed – societally-related?
Of course, in such circumstances, keeping quiet does not extend to us being asked to break the law – or, at least, I would hope not. On the other hand, the way big companies are built these days – designed as they are to make it impossible for almost anyone to have a full overview of their processes and procedures in order to future-proof them against damaging staff turnover in times of extreme competition – means it is only out of the small gobbets of knowledge hundreds of thousands may separately possess that full stories may ever be known.
Perhaps in such structures, then, we have a case of a systemically fashioned “omertà”: not a code of silence which requires workforces to more or less voluntarily shut up but, rather, an infrastructure of Chinese walls generated by the evermore piecemeal approach to procedures and processes which makes it literally impossible for any ordinary worker these days to tell the truth as reality might honestly recognise it.
So this isn’t a code of silence as such – but its impact on the ability of anyone to tell the whole truth is just as effective as anything the Mafia could’ve come up with.
Tom, you were sort of right when you described this as a mafia-like organisation. But, actually, you didn’t go far enough. This is far worse.